Even if the New York Times‘ Sunday travel section wasn’t one of the few remaining dedicated travel sections left in U.S. newspapers, what it chooses to write about would still draw attention. From the paper’s physical distribution network to its digital might, a mention in the Times can put a destination, hotel, tour, or travel app on the map.
It’s annual ‘Places to Go’ has become the bucket list of bucket lists. Last year’s list of 46 Places to Go in 2013 was one of the Times most popular interactive features in a year when the Times splashed out big on multimedia features. Other publications do top destinations packages (we look at the trends driving this year’s lists here), but few have resources to call on that can compete with the Times.
The 2014 “Places to Go” package of 52 destinations will be published online later today (Ed’s Note: it is live now) and appear in the Sunday edition of the paper, where it will take over the entire travel section. Like the average American, the list is getting fatter every year: there were 31 picks in 2010, 41 in 2011, and 45 in 2012.
Inclusion on the list is always a good start to the year for destination marketers. Hawai’i's Big Island was a pick on last year’s list and Ross Birch, executive director of the Big Island Visitors Bureau, told Skift, “For the first eleven months of 2013, Hawai’i Island saw a 15.3 percent increase in spending and a 2.1 percent increase in arrivals. We know that the additional attention this honor provided helped in our overall efforts to build more interest in Hawai’i Island.”
Dan Saltzstein, an editor at the New York Times travel section who has led the Places to Go feature for the last four years, spoke with Skift about the selection process earlier in the week.
Skift: What resources — writers, photographers, cartographers, developers — are you able to pull together from the NYT to make this list possible?
Saltzstein: All of the above. All of the writing in the roundup is by freelancers — contributors to the section who we trust, many of whom are based overseas. Ditto the amazing photographers — we used about 15 to 20 this year, from Justin Mott in Southeast Asia to Andrew Testa in England.”
Beyond that, it’s all staff: multiple layers of editors for the copy; our photo editor (with some research help); an art director; a page designer; and, for the interactive online version, our web producer and folks from the graphics, interactive and social media departments. Very much an all-hands-on-deck project.
And this year, we’re adding moving images to our online version — we call them cinegraphs. So those were shot by some of the photographers and edited and processed by our video department.
Skift: The feature is even bigger this year. How did you make that happen?
Saltzstein: We devoted more of the section to the roundup. In the past, we’ve had an accompanying essay or some other feature (last year, we ran a huge — and really fun — illustration). This year, with the exception of Seth Kugel’s annual Frugal Traveler column on ways to save in the coming year, some sidebars on interesting events happening in the coming year (art and music festival, major anniversaries, etc.), and some reader photos generated by our list last year, the entire section is devoted to our Places to Go list.
Skift: What’s the selection process like?
Saltzstein: First, we solicit pitches from our contributing writers; we get hundreds. After a marathon editors’ session or two, we whittle down that list, based primarily on two goals: 1) picking places that are the most interesting in the coming year for a specific reason (a major event of some kind, a new way to get there, a relatively undiscovered place that’s a great alternative to over-touristed spots), and 2) a geographic and thematic diversity, to appeal to all tastes.
Skift: Do your non-travel correspondents ever pitch in with suggestions of new spots or caution you that one of your picks is about to blow up?
Saltzstein: We do ask them to weigh in on the list, since they are so knowledgeable about the regions they cover. They were very enthusiastic about this year’s roundup.
Skift: You always have the longest list, and it arrives after every other publisher’s list and yet it’s still one of the most-, if not the most, talked about Top Destinations roundups in the industry. What’s behind the appreciation for your picks?
Saltzstein: Well, that’s nice to hear. I’d like to think it’s two things: the thought we put behind the list and making sure it’s a diverse one, and the resources we have to present it in a (hopefully) stunning and engaging way.
Skift: In your time editing this list, have you ever regretted a pick and why?
Saltzstein: I’m sure there have been picks that didn’t pan out the way we hoped. That could be because predicted things didn’t happen (say, a big festival or resort opening), or because of a natural disaster or some other unexpected event. We’ve had close calls with the latter situation — our #1 pick in 2011 was Santiago, which experienced a devastating earthquake the year before (that was part of the appeal, of course: its comeback). And then another earthquake hit the week before we closed the section. Luckily (mostly for Santiago, but also us), it was relatively minor and didn’t effect anything we discussed in the item. Always a nerve-wracking situation.
I should point out that with other items, we’re careful to note complexities in traveling to certain places. Myanmar — every travel writer’s favorite pitch over the last year — was #3 on our 2012 list. Could it have been #1? Perhaps. But as a destination still very much in flux, it wasn’t quite the accessible travel spot we look for as our #1.
Skift: When do you start planing the list and when is it finalized?
Saltzstein: Earlier and earlier every year, it seems. I think we started planning — which is to say, notified writers we were looking for ideas — in about mid-October for this year’s. And changes happen right up until we close the section, the Monday before the weekend the section comes out. But by and large the list and rankings are finalized by mid-December.